History of Avionics

The history of avionics is the history of the use of electronics in aviation. Both military and civil aviation requirements contributed to the development. The First World War brought about an urgent need for communications. Voice communications from ground-to-air and from aircraft to aircraft were established. [Figure 1] The development of aircraft reliability and use for civilian purposes in the 1920s led to increased instrumentation and set in motion the need to conquer blind flight—flight without the ground being visible. Radio beacon direction finding was developed for en route navigation. Toward the end of the decade, instrument navigation combined with rudimentary radio use to produce the first safe blind landing of an aircraft.

History of Avionics
Figure 1. Early voice communication radio tests in 1917. Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

In the 1930s, the first all radio-controlled blind-landing was accomplished. At the same time, radio navigation using ground-based beacons expanded. Instrument navigation certification for airline pilots began. Low and medium frequency radio waves were found to be problematic at night and in weather. By the end of the decade, use of high frequency radio waves was explored and included the advent of high-frequency radar.

In the 1940s, after two decades of development driven by mail carrier and passenger airline requirements, World War II injected urgency into the development of aircraft radio communication and navigation. Communication radios, despite their size, were essential on board aircraft. [Figure 2] Very high frequencies were developed for communication and navigational purposes. Installation of the first instrument landing systems for blind landings began mid-decade and, by the end of the decade, the very high frequency omni-directional range (VOR) navigational network was instituted. It was also in the 1940s that the first transistor was developed, paving the way for modern, solidstate electronics.

History of Avionics
Figure 2. Bomber onboard radio station

Civilian air transportation increased over the ensuing decades. Communication and navigation equipment was refined. Solid-state radio development, especially in the 1960s, produced a wide range of small, rugged radio and navigational equipment for aircraft. The space program began and added a higher level of communication and navigational necessity. Communication satellites were also launched. The Cold War military build-up caused developments in guidance and navigation and gave birth to the concept of using satellites for positioning.

In the 1970s, concept-validation of satellite navigation was introduced for the military and Block I global positioning system (GPS) satellites were launched well into the 1980s. Back on earth, the long range navigation system (LORAN) was constructed. Block II GPS satellites were commissioned in the mid-80s and GPS became operational in 1990 with the full 24-satellite system operational in 1994.

In the new millennium, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assessed the national airspace system (NAS) and traffic projections for the future. Gridlock is predicted by 2022. Therefore, a complete overhaul of the NAS, including communication and navigational systems, has been developed and undertaken. The program is called NextGen.

It uses the latest technologies to provide a more efficient and effective system of air traffic management. Heavily reliant on global satellite positioning of aircraft in flight and on the ground, NextGen combines GPS technology with automatic dependant surveillance broadcast technology (ADS-B) for traffic separation. A large increase in air system capacity is the planned result. Overhauled ground facilities accompany the technology upgrades mandated for aircraft. NextGen implementation has started and is currently scheduled through the year 2025.

For the past few decades, avionics development has increased at a faster pace than that of airframe and powerplant development. This is likely to continue in the near future. Improvements to solid-state electronics in the form of microand nano-technologies continue to this day. Trends are toward lighter, smaller devices with remarkable capability and reliability. Integration of the wide range of communication and navigational aids is a focus.

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